Small Wars Journal

Mentoring on the Edge

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Mentoring on the Edge

or, "What you Don't Learn in a Classroom"

by Colonel John Bessler

Download the full article:

Mentoring on the Edge

The 'Afghan experience' for those who serve overseas can be vastly different

from the one about which the American public sees, hears, and reads.  The same

can be said for those who do the writing and reporting.  It is comparatively

simple to travel to Afghanistan, observe and interview selflessly-serving

patriots at work, and write a blog or an article about the challenges ISAF and

the coalition faces; it is quite another to be intimately involved in a mission

extending over many months.  It's easy to watch; it's tough to "do."

This article attempts to bridge that gap.  As one of the many who have

mentored, assisted, trained, and fought with the Afghan National Security Forces

(ANSF), I hope to provide some perspective to the stories in the paper or

blogosphere.  From mid-2008 through 2009, I commanded all the ANSF mentors and

trainers in the Western Provinces of Afghanistan, in an area about the size of

Mississippi, and served as the senior US officer west of Kabul and north of


In my role of commanding the mentors and trainers embedded in all three

Afghan security organizations (Army, Police, and Border Police), we contended

with competing priorities, the tyranny of distance in counterinsurgency (COIN)

environment, answering to a NATO higher headquarters, and responsible for four

vast, remote and primitive Afghan provinces, in an economy of force mission.  We

experienced firsthand the day-to-day frustration and the almost crushing

inertia, friction, and fog of war that comes with working in a coalition; as a

result, I feel uniquely branded by my experiences.  Hence the article's title,

"Mentoring at the Edge of Civilization -- What You Can't Learn in the Classroom."

This story mostly takes place in Badghis Province.  Badghis is the one

province in Afghanistan in which no part of the Ring Road is paved.  Just east

of Herat City, the all-weather road turns to gravel, then dirt, then into a

potholed path.  It improves slightly over the 8200' Sabzak Pass (courtesy of the

Spanish), then returns to a bone-jarring, winding dirt path through several

villages enroute to Qala-E-Naw, and all the way into Ghormach District/ Farayab

Province in Regional Command-North.  It doesn't return to all-weather road until

about Meymanah, where a Chinese company is currently laboring to finish the job.

Download the full article:

Mentoring on the Edge

COL John Bessler became the Deputy Director of PKSOI in May 2010. Prior to

that he served as the Division Chief, Security, Reconstruction, and Transitions

for PKSOI in August 2009 after 14 months in Herat, Afghanistan, where he

commanded the Afghan Regional Security Integration Command, Western Provinces (ARSIC-West).

In that position, he worked and fought side-by-side with Afghan and NATO forces

while training Afghan Army and Afghan Police forces during 2008 and 2009. He

worked intimately and regularly with NATO forces both in a mentoring as well as

in a combat capacity, and even more routinely with United States Agency for

International Development (USAID) and Department of State representatives, four

Provincial Reconstruction Teams from as many countries, as well as routine

contacts with DIA, CIA, the Joint Interagency Task Force (Counter Narcotics),

and Special Operations Forces (USA and USMC.)

About the Author(s)


Wonder where COL Bessler wound up at...

If anything, John is being too understated, since there were @ 18K folks at Bagram around this time, but nobody could free up a few (thirty!) to send them to the west.

He mentions the ANSF asking for help with supplies... It's kabuki theater when you can't find out the real story, but without any HUMINT capacity, you do what you can...

Commando Spirit

Mon, 07/05/2010 - 11:53am

A good paper but are we not a little too focussed on the mentoring and embedded partnering of the Combat Arms to the detriment of the CSS units?

There is little to no CSS mentoring going on out there from what I have seen and as such we can 'make' the best COIN operators under the sun but without the requisite CSS behind them it will all amount to nothing. Surely I am not the only one who has observed this going on? Please tell me that someone way above my payscale is working on this?

ANSF are working well and working hard, yes there is a long way to go but they too are taking big losses at the hands of the insurgents. ANP need a bit of a prod I must admit but we recruit from local areas for local police and that's our first mistake. If the paramilitary ANP were regionally recruited then many of the problems associated with them; corruption, power struggles etc would go away.

The UK COIN principle of 'Prepare for the Long Term' was never truer...

I'll let you know, since I deploy in 5 weeks!

proudmom (not verified)

Sat, 07/03/2010 - 2:36pm

we lost some guys there ....

it's a hell zone there ... most people don't know about it ...

ISAF rocks there ... thank god for them ...


Fri, 07/02/2010 - 9:14pm

A well written article. I was never aware of all of the inner-Coalition friction. As Morgan mentioned, I am confident that this will change as more pressure is put on the commanders in Afghanistan. If we hope for the OMLTs to succeed, it is necessary.

I also found the comments about the relationship between the mentors and Afghans interesting. The Afghans are quite capable; they aren't a completely dysfunctional organization. It's essential that the OMLTs only step in when they are truly needed.

Good read.

Interesting read. I, too, hope the deployment of 4/82 AAB to RC-West helped to fix the problem of too few advisers in that AO. Given the oft-mentioned shortage of advisers in A'stan, why does the Army (and HRC) not allow people to go, or extend, there when the request is made?

As for working with a coalition, I have very little experience with that. But, while in Kandahar in mid '08, I do recall being briefed that air MEDEVAC could be a lengthy affair given that the Canadians, who run the show there, were short on aircraft. I also recall Germans in Kabul explaining that they were reluctant to return fire even when fired upon because they could potentially be prosecuted for murder back home. WTF?

In any case, I suspect that much of what COL Bessler describes may be changing as we "surge" forces into A'stan.....maybe.